Long, long ago, in a world far, far away, philosopher and cultural critic George Santayana in 1905 noted that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”*
Have Americans learned from history? Have they any core knowledge of the past from which to draw wisdom, conclusions, and rational guidance? To judge by the record of the last half century – no. Perhaps a more pertinent question might be: Do they know history? Most Americans are feeble on their own history, having never encountered much of it except for the Howard Ziinn- or Bill Ayers- style of history, or the multiculturalist brand, never mind world history or ancient history. They have been dumbed down and rendered ignorant of their own past. The Punic Wars? The Gates of Vienna? The Council of Nicaea? Kristallnacht? These events may as well have occurred on a distant planet.
Our educational establishment, at great taxpayer and personal cost, has seen to it that most Americans have been enfeebled from K1 up through college commencement, and has performed a pretty thorough and effective job of it. I’ve done enough booksignings to observe that more than one American has had a Jay Leno “man in the street” moment. Who crossed the Delaware? Lincoln. Who is Joe Biden? Isn’t he a quarterback for the New England Patriots? Sharia Law? Wasn’t she one of the Dixie Chicks?
One can only blink in discreet and astonished trepidation.
The “Enablers” in the title of my previous post got me thinking about Adolf Hitler’s Enabling Act of 1933. Its formal name was the Law to Remedy the Distress of the People and the Nation. This was a sweeping, across-the-board repudiation and nullification of what few liberties Germans had in the expiring Weimar Republic, a single, all-encompassing piece of legislation that ushered in the rule of men who subsequently buried the rule of law. Hitler demanded its passage. It would give him unobstructed and unprecedented power to impose his vision of Germany on the country. Many Germans were enamored of that vision. It comported nicely with their shared sense of victimhood. He was their messiah. He had all the answers. He would do something to get them out of their economic rut, to restore the country’s collective self-esteem, and resurrect Germany as a Teutonic power to be reckoned with.
The Act received overwhelming approval by the Reichstag, or the parliament, in March that year. And in approving it, it voted itself out of existence. Perhaps most of the delegates were tired of passing laws that only made things worse. Perhaps they knew their limitations. The man at the podium did not seem to have any limitations. He could probably work miracles.
One impetus for passage of the Enabling Act was the Reichstag Fire of February 1933, a week before the general election that sent veteran and new delegates to the Reichstag. Regardless of who was responsible for the fire, the Communists or the Nazis, it allowed newly appointed Chancellor Hitler to push even more vigorously for passage of the Act. His sole purpose was to increase the number of pro-Act votes in the Reichstag to two-thirds or better, which would ensure passage of the Act. Support came from the Catholic Center Party, whose votes were secured with promises to respect religious freedom. This is somewhat reminiscent of how ObamaCare was passed – with bribes and guarantees of earmarks and not a little support from the American Catholic Church.
Before the fire, the Nazis had polled only twelve percent of the vote. Hitler’s decree of a national emergency pushed that up to about forty-four percent. Blaming the Communists, he issued the Reichstag Fire Decree, which suspended most civil liberties in Germany. It enabled him to ban publications considered hostile to the Nazi cause. It also precipitated a reign of terror and intimidation against anyone who voiced doubt about the wisdom of the Enabling Act. This served to increase the Nazis’ chances of passage, because many deputies and voters abstained or were prevented from voting by Hitler’s paramilitary SA.
(Worried that his hold on the government and the country was being jeopardized by the thuggish SA, whose head, Ernst Rohm, insisted that the SA replace the German army, Hitler in June 1934 launched the bloody “Night of the Long Knives” that resulted in the murders of Rohm and hundreds of SA chiefs. Just as Hitler wished to legalize his dictatorship with the Enabling Act, he wished to soften and legitimize the image of the Nazi Party.)
When the Act became law, Hitler dispensed with the Reichstag, a representative body of the electorate. He would not need to answer to it or to the electorate. It became superfluous, an empty ornament and a semi-respectable podium for his subsequent rantings.
Are Americans condemned to repeat that history? It would be heartening if by that it was meant that Americans were going to finish the American Revolution and roll back government spending, abolish the all the parasitical and regulatory alphabet bureaus, agencies and departments in Washington from A Street S.W. to Z Street N.E., get the government out of our lives, pockets, and pants, off our menus, out of our cars, out of hospitals and doctors’ offices, out of the schools, and reintroduce the idea of inviolate individual rights and the proper role of government. The Tea Party movement had the potential for firing Congress, just as Americans had fired the British Crown.
What we have not witnessed ever since Barack Obama took office in 2009 is anything so arrogant and bold as the kind of “democratic” coup d'état staged by Hitler. The move to the Oval Office was loudly orchestrated, just as Hitler’s move to the Chancellorship was loudly orchestrated. Instead, Obama has been writing his own Enabling Act piecemeal, in installments, as patiently as completing a jigsaw puzzle. This puzzle was begun by the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson long, long ago.
One cannot call it anything but an Enabling Act, because it not so much exclusively bestows the president with plenary powers, as shares those powers with Congress with dependable ideological encouragement from the White House, and opaque (i.e., not transparent) horse-trading and log-rolling between it and Congress, coupled with the White House’s arm-twisting and brow-beating emissaries. It comes slowly into focus as each new government-caused “crisis” is answered with an expansion of controls and as each piece of the puzzle helps to complete a picture of what Obama knows is its final form.
Obama campaigned, after all, on the platform that he, too, had remedies for a distressed people and nation. He was rather vague and equivocal about what he meant. But people who were enamored of his vision of what the country should be voted for him. His rhetoric resonated with their yearning for the unearned and the miraculous. Visions of sugar plum fairies and stockings stuffed with all sorts of redistributed goodies danced in their heads.
His rhetoric and bogus charisma commanded a near-religious devotion among his supporters that has few historic parallels. The power of John F. Kennedy’s appeal and Amiee Semple McPherson’s revival tent and radio style comes to mind. Kennedy and McPherson, too, were faith-healers who spoke in tongues. “By its decision to carry out the political and moral cleansing of our public life, the Government is creating and securing the conditions for a really deep and inner religious life.”
Really deep? Another sloppy Obamaism? No. It was Hitler urging the Reichstag to pass the Enabling Act. But one can easily imagine those words being spoken by Obama. He probably has. I don’t pretend to remember every toxic and rancid drop of dissimulating verbal swill that has been uttered by the man.
I see parallels here between the purge of Rohm and the SA and the announced departures of key Obama appointees. Whether these resignations were voluntary or solicited by Obama is a moot question. Intentional or not, they serve to ameliorate the tangible public hostility to Obama and his administration and create a more conciliatory image of a man unswervingly dedicated to nationwide “community organizing.”
But, what is our Reichstag Fire? On the face of it, the subprime mortgage meltdown in 2008, and everything that followed. To attempt to recount that debacle would be to lose the reader in a labyrinth of Federal frauds, scams, bailout tarpaulins, and malfeasances that would bewilder Theseus. There would not be enough thread for him to go clear back to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s time and then retrace his steps without being assaulted, TSA-style, by Barney Frank’s many Minotaurs.
But the subprime collapse served as the excuse to adopt certain “emergency” confiscatory powers, many already in existence but not fully exploited, others created from whole cloth. Capitalism, Wall Street, and Joe the Plumber were blamed, not Federal policies whose illegitimate economic concoctions had been percolating since at least Bill Clinton’s administration. Beginning with Jimmy Carter’s Community Reinvestment Act, followed by Ronald Reagan and his Alternative Mortgage Transactions Parity Act and the bailouts of the savings and loans under his watch, every president since then has had a hand in stirring the pot in which the frog swims, and both political parties.
Hitler believed in a division of labor. He wanted his devoted cabinet, not the Reichstag, to exercise power and make law. Obama’s cabinet appointments emulate the character and pattern, as well. As Germany’s economy was warped and woofed by government fiscal, regulatory, and taxation policies together with entitlement programs, so was and has been America’s. Obama enlarged his “cabinet” by creating two or so dozen “czars.” They would make law, as well, in their particular satrapies, with the sanction of a complicit and ideologically friendly Congress and to the eager applause of a co-opted press.
In Germany, the Enabling Act allowed Hitler to virtually nationalize key industries – in fact, the whole German economy – allowing owners to “own” them but compelling them to take orders and conform to the government’s statist priorities. What is the difference then and now? Only the venue and the language. We have a government intent on regulating, if not taking over, numerous realms of private productive activity, from travel to toys to tobacco to diets to the Internet to oil drilling and exploration to food and farming to medical care and insurance.
All of this and more represents only a climax of successive waves of growing government controls, but it took an Obama to orchestrate it – to slam-dunk it, in populist parlance – not in the name of fascism (that would be bigoted “profiling”), but of “progressivism.” Also known in certain circles whose members remember the past, have learned from it, and who fear its repetition, as incremental socialism. Call it national socialism, if you will. It still means totalitarianism.
One’s more immediate enemies are not Obama, or Nancy Pelosi, or Harry Reid, or Barney Frank, or Henry Waxman, but rather those countless American manqués who empower them and in turn are patronized by them, who do not mind being fondled and groped and radiated by the TSA in the name of a national security that is not security at all, but control for the sake of control. These are the people who scoffed at the Tea Party movement and now sneer at defenders of the First, Second, and Fourth Amendments. These are also the same happily ignorant and insouciant people who claim that the “price of liberty” is slavery to the IRS, the FDA, the EPA, the FCC, the FEC, the PPACA, the SEC, ad infinitum. Philosophically, morally, they are the original authors of Obama’s Enabling Act. They are card-carrying ciphers of the police state, ready to obey and receive their rewards and enjoy their state-granted privileges. They are the altruist and collectivist dhimmis of a secular Islam.
Will the Republicans check the implementation of Obama’s Enabling Act? I have my doubts, too, that a beaver dam can contain a freshet. Their willingness to “negotiate,” for example, an extension of the Bush tax cuts instills no confidence in me, nor should it in anyone else. As deadly as Obama’s emerging Enabling Act might be, is the anti-principle, anti-morality, anti-philosophy of appeasing pragmatism, of cutting a deal to stave off disaster or to retain power. It sanctions and enables the evil that men can do.
As Ayn Rand famously noted in her novel, Atlas Shrugged, “In any compromise between food and poison, it is only death that can win. In any compromise between good and evil, it is only evil that can profit.”
Will the Republicans be the death of us?
Long live Lady Liberty.
*“Life of Reason," in Reason in Common Sense, Scribner's, 1905, page 284.